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Down on the Farm: The Black Hills

The Black Hills of South Dakota usually get a glance or two as I pass them through on my way to Arizona. It is fun to check to see how the Four Big Heads are doing and stop in Rapid City for a tank of gas and a bed.

However, I have never before spent a weekend in the Black Hills area only to turn around and go home again as I did with a friend last weekend.

Our goal was to shoot photos of wildlife, but in the process we saw what was, to me at least, an unexpected variety of spectacular scenery. Funny how we think all the good scenery has to be farther away than a one-day drive. For instance, I didn't even tour the North Dakota badlands until two years ago. Nothing good could be that close to home!

Those badlands were spectacular and well worth the trip. Now I discover South Dakota has a stretch of impressive badlands as well.

Just to the east of Rapid City, the Badlands of South Dakota have a completely different feel.

North Dakota's Badlands were carved out below the rim of the surrounding terrain, sort of like a miniature Grand Canyon.

In South Dakota, the Badlands rise from the prairie and give one a commanding vista of the plains to the east and the Black Hills to the west.

The greens, reds, yellows and oranges of the layered clay mounds catch fire at sunset and change hues before your eyes.

Just southeast of the Black Hills is Custer State Park, a great place to view wildlife. In addition to a herd of 1,600 bison, the park is home to long-horn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, prairie dogs and tame wild burros who like to stick their nose in your vehicle.

Custer State Park is a different world from the Badlands only a few miles away. Its grassy, rolling plains are dotted with pine and interlaced with flowing streams. Aspen and birch clustered around the creeks have already turned a brilliant fall yellow.

Just across the Wyoming border to the northwest of Rapid City is Devils Tower. Thirty-some miles off the freeway, it is easy to pass the tower by.

Don't. It should be seen at least once in a person's life, particularly by those who live as close as we do.

Looking like a massive tree stump in the middle of the prairie, trails circle the base of the the 800 foot-tall monolith allowing you to watch the ant-like climbers scale its face. Even if you can barely spot them, the climbers' voices carry down to the more sensible hikers on the horizontal trails below.

Unlike the other sites, Devil's Tower, although well-visited, isn't quite so crushed with tourists on a sunny autumn day.

If nothing else, just hike the longer, unpaved trails and shake the thronging masses off your tail.

Devil's Tower is a perfect Sunday afternoon excursion. Within the Black Hills, there are numerous sights besides the crowded Big Heads. My favorite is The Needles, a little pull-off where you can squeeze between tall, narrow rock formations and climb around a bit without risking your life.

Bottom line: if you don't pull off the main highway, you could go through life thinking the Black Hills area consists primarily over-hyped human-made spectacles.

Consequently, a vacationing family could hit all the hyped junk and miss all the natural stuff. It's like going to the Wisconsin Dells and spending your time in the waterpark. Why are the actual dells even there?

The warm springs were a treat years ago, but getting wet in the middle of the day for no good reason no longer interests me. Another downside: the traffic in the parks, even at the end of September, was pretty intense. Although the motorcycle rally at Sturgis is long over, some of the rumblers still haven't left the area.

But all in all, the collective natural wonders around Rapid City satisfy as fully as those found at Yellowstone -- and they are one day closer to home.